Referendum may expand restaurant liquor licensing

Heather Bray of The Lowbrow says voters should grant all neighborhood businesses the chance to apply for a full liquor license.
Heather Bray of The Lowbrow says voters should grant all neighborhood businesses the chance to apply for a full liquor license.

Neighborhood restaurateurs are asking for the chance to serve cocktails, and voters will decide in November whether to allow restaurants located anywhere in the city to apply for a full liquor license.

The city currently only allows businesses connected to seven acres of commercial property to apply for a full liquor license beyond beer and wine. But businesses can lobby the state Legislature to make exceptions, and that’s been granted at 25 spots like Tinto Kitchen and Nighthawks. Advocates note that the exemption stays with the address, so Upton 43’s exemption also applied to Martina, a new restaurant on the same site.

Heather Bray at The Lowbrow said the expense of hiring a state lobbyist creates an unequal playing field for businesses.

“I’m running my restaurant every day and I don’t have the time or money to do something like that,” she said.

Minneapolis’ rules related to the minimum wage and sick time have created a more difficult climate for business owners, she said. She said her bartenders would mix drinks to the same potency as wine or beer.

“All of these old laws come from the Prohibition era,” Bray said. “…I think it’s a no-brainer.”

Because the rule is part of the city charter, voters must approve a referendum to change the law.

An advocacy group called Citizens for a Modern Minneapolis include restaurateurs like Steven Brown and Molly Broder, and they’ve launched the website yeson1mpls.com. The group was also active in passing the “70/30” charter amendment no longer requiring neighborhood restaurants to generate 70 percent of sales from food. A previous charter amendment came in 1997, when voters allowed neighborhood restaurants to serve alcohol outside major commercial zones.

When Nighthawks sought a full liquor license last summer, the business received several letters of support from residents.

“The neighborhood is changing and getting to be very young and trendy,” said one Kingfield homeowner in a letter to the city. “I think it will take many many years before it’s like Uptown but I’m all for having more restaurants and bars.”

Matt Perry, a member of the city Charter Commission and president of the Southwest Business Association, introduced the ballot proposal in June. He said businesses can make more money on liquor sales than wine and beer, but Minneapolis restaurants by definition must derive a “substantial” portion of sales from food. The city requires restaurants to offer a full menu of food most of the day.

Perry noted that businesses would not automatically be granted licenses to sell liquor, and all the normal rules in applications would still apply.

“The charter amendment is just getting rid of the seven-acre rule,” he said.

The change would not impact grocery stores and other retail stores.

The referendum will ask: “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove from the City Charter the area and spacing requirements pertaining to liquor licenses?”

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